Leaders’ Questions.

The Government is set to proceed with the process for introducing electronic voting. I respect the fact that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, tried to make contact from Brussels yesterday about the appointment of an independent panel. That was the level of consultation with the leaders of the Opposition parties about this matter. Is the Taoiseach happy with that level of consultation on a matter so fundamental to our democracy as a change in the voting system? Why were the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Ombudsman not appointed to the independent panel? Is it because they had expressed concern about this change to the system of voting? Why were they not appointed to the commission?

Can the Taoiseach verify whether he is prepared to expand the terms of reference of the independent panel? It seems that the panel is now being forced to examine this system only and verify if it is foolproof and can command trust. Can it also consider the different electronic system about which the Taoiseach spoke yesterday, which 400 million Indians used to vote? Why is the panel confined to one system only? Will the Taoiseach confirm that its terms of reference can be broadened to examine other electronic systems to achieve some measure of trust in a system that has now patently become a complete and utter shambles?

Is the Taoiseach prepared to expand the terms of reference? Why were the Comptroller and Auditor General and Ombudsman not appointed to the panel? Is it because they had made statements expressing concern about a process that has become completely politicised in the last few months?

Anyone would agree that the independent commission that we have asked to do this job is just that. Its members should be allowed to get on with their work unfettered by political comment and interference; there will certainly be none from me. I will not question the commission's integrity and we should not do so. The commission's composition includes a High Court judge and members of the Standards in Public Office Commission. The Government considered having the Comptroller and Auditor General as a member, and I would have liked to have had him on it, but he must arbitrate and report on departmental funding and expenditure aspects of the scheme. It seems that a person could not be involved in both positions. However, the Standards in Public Office Commission is involved. The terms of reference are broad enough. We have already decided on the system and there is no point in saying that we have not.

The Taoiseach means he has decided.

We have used the system since 1999. Deputy Allen did not seem to mind in 2002——

We did not even know.

——when we used it in the general election or the Nice referendum. One must remember that 400,000 people in this country have used the system.

Over recent weeks the Government has been asked to set up an independent commission, a request to which it has agreed. We said we would do so to verify the secrecy and accuracy of the system; we have agreed to establish that. To allay any possible fears that a ministerial order introducing electronic voting for local and European elections could be faulty, the Government has agreed to introduce legislation to cover that point, which I was asked in the House. In response to concerns raised in this House by people involved in the electoral process, we have undertaken to legislate the conditions under which data can been made available for the electronic voting system. There have been calls for a dual system, and I have answered those. I have been asked to outline the verification of these systems and the procurement process. We know that they need that Powervote system and that it is one of the best available, having been verified by several countries, including Germany and the Netherlands.

In local elections.

At every turn I have tried to deal with those issues. I repeat once again that this has been in the public domain for five years.

That does not make it right.

We have used the system in two elections, and it has been verified by international standards bodies in several countries. We have adhered to and tried to take into account all the valid points that have been made.

It is impossible to get an answer from the Taoiseach. He might like to refer to why he abandoned the process on Committee Stage of the Bill if he is as broad-minded as he claims. The Taoiseach says that he believes the terms of reference are broad enough. Is he prepared to allow for an expansion of the terms of reference so that this independent panel can consider other electronic voting systems to which he referred yesterday? Can he explain why the Ombudsman has not been appointed to the independent panel if the Comptroller and Auditor General cannot be appointed? The Taoiseach wanted him on it, and yet he is not there.

I want to be helpful. Voting is of tremendous political importance to all people and shades of opinion in this country, yet it is now a total shambles. For instance, we have the Referendum Commission, the boundary commission and this independent panel. Presidential elections are run by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. The European and local elections are separate. This is all over the place. If the Taoiseach wishes to restore some modicum of respect and trust in the system, he should answer these questions. Is he prepared to allow the panel to examine other electronic systems? The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, made his calls in desperation from Brussels yesterday.

You wanted Internet voting.

The Minister, Deputy Cullen, should allow Deputy Kenny to conclude without interruption.

Deputy Cullen is the director of elections and he gave out a €4.5 million contract to one of his henchmen.

Deputy Kenny's minute is concluded.

The best day in your life was the day you handed in your application form to the Fianna Fáil Party after leaving the Progressive Democrats.

Maybe if you had done the same, you would be sitting here too.

Deputy Kenny should address his remarks through the Chair.

The Government has lost this public relations battle. There is serious unrest about this.

Deputy Kenny's time is concluded.

I have a final question for the Taoiseach. If this independent panel——

Sorry, Deputy, we have gone well over the time.

A Cheann Comhairle, you are the person who is to receive this report and you know as much about software code sourcing as I do.

The Deputy should not involve the Chair in this debate.

If this panel expresses serious concerns, is the Taoiseach prepared to back away from the system?

I was asked a few weeks ago in the House to establish an independent commission. We have set up that independent commission with a High Court judge——

Without consulting anybody.

I have a minute to answer. I know the Deputy does not really want to know any of the answers but he should give me a minute.

It is not independent.

If a High Court judge, Justice Matthew P. Smith, is not independent——

The Taoiseach did not consult anybody.

Deputy Allen will have to leave the House if he continues to interrupt.

He is chairman of the Standards in Public Office Commission——

Only the party leader can ask supplementary questions.

Deputy Allen makes many throwaway remarks. This is a High Court judge who is chairman of the Standards in Public Office Commission. The man is beyond reproach so the Deputy should not make throwaway remarks. I was asked to set up a commission——

Why was there no consultation?

He is a Fianna Fáil hack.

Withdraw that.

We appointed independent people, such as the Clerk of the Seanad and the Clerk of the House——

Withdraw that remark.

The Deputy should withdraw that remark.

The Minister, Deputy Roche, must allow the Taoiseach to answer without interruption.

If people——

Withdraw that remark about the judge.

We have given the commission broad terms of reference. The commission, which will be independent in the performance of its functions, shall prepare a number of reports for presentation to the Ceann Comhairle on the secrecy and accuracy of the chosen electronic system and the counting system. They were the points of concern put forward by the Opposition parties. One cannot simply wake up the next morning and move off the ground on which one has argued one's case.

There was no consultation, just a phone call from Brussels.

Deputy Kenny spoke about looking at another system when an enormous amount of time, more than five years——

You have spent €40 million of the people's money.

No, the Government and the Department concerned have.

You rushed into it.

Over five years and over €40 million have been invested in the best international system we could find. It was verified by the only international bodies which are in the business of doing this, in Germany and the Netherlands. Let us not talk nonsense. I wish to ask one question in return.

Come over here if you want to ask a question.

You will get an answer.

Is somebody prepared to stand up and say that Fianna Fáil has manipulated this system or that it has changed the software to manipulate the vote?

You would if you got a chance.

Not yet.

(Interruptions.)

If that is what Members are saying——

I am prepared to stand up——

Deputy Kenny should resume his seat and allow the Taoiseach to conclude.

It will be said outside the House.

Can I ask one question? I have been answering them for six weeks.

(Interruptions).

Allow the Taoiseach to continue. Deputy Kenny must resume his seat.

If people are prepared to say that, they should say it outside the House and let the reputable companies involved in this take the necessary action.

It will be said outside the House.

The Taoiseach asked the question.

I have another question.

There is no provision for a further supplementary. Deputy Kenny will have to find another way of asking his question. I call Deputy Rabbitte.

People outside the House are saying it.

The answer to the Taoiseach's question is yes, if they thought they would get away with it. The Minister for Finance agreed at the weekend that the purpose of decentralisation, in the fashion in which he announced it, was to shore up the political fortunes of the two parties in Government by the time of the next election. Since that announcement, a number of unions, surveys and Departments have detailed the widespread resistance within the Civil Service and public service and the concerns about the adverse implications for governance that will be caused by the manner in which the decision was announced by the Minister.

The survey results show, for example, that out of 424 people in the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources who replied, 29 offered to relocate. In the Department of Transport the number was 19 out of 460, in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment 229 volunteered from the 1050 staff, in the Department of Agriculture and Food it was 167 out of the 655 personnel and in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform there were 160 volunteers from the 980 staff. The Institute of Engineers, the Planning Institute, the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland and the Society of Chartered Surveyors have expressed concerns and the Association of Higher Civil Servants said the plan was daft. The association produced a consultant's report which stated that almost 60,000 people are affected in the Minister's relocation plan.

Will the Taoiseach ignore the concerns expressed by people who have loyally served the State and who have pointed out that this is an unplanned and un-negotiated announcement? There was no consultation and it does not even conform to the Government's policy on the spatial strategy. Whereas this House is in agreement on the necessity for planned and balanced regional development, the manner in which the lock, stock and barrel relocation of Departments was announced is bad for the Government. It will lead to the politicisation of the Civil Service and the Minister said as much at the weekend.

This Government has fought the case for and implemented balanced regional development for the last number of years. In seeking Objective One status under the last round of Structural Funds we argued for the division of the country into the BMW and south-east regions and we carefully implemented that scheme to good effect. We presented the national spatial strategy and we have now presented our infrastructural programme, the national development plan, which is also being implemented. It will connect infrastructure throughout the country in many ways.

We announced a programme of decentralisation of over 10,000 public servants to 53 locations. We have set up a number of groups to deal with that. The Flynn group presented its first report to the Cabinet sub-committee last week and will present its implementation plan at the end of March. The Office of Public Works is actively engaged and we have received an enormous response from various companies and organisations throughout the country which wish to provide office accommodation and facilities for our public servants.

We understand that this plan must be negotiated, as the previous one was successfully negotiated, with our public and civil servants. We are also aware that there are thousands of civil and public servants who wish to move away from Dublin city for many reasons. We intend to make provision for that. We are also aware that, using modern communications technology, it is good for Dublin, the regions and the Civil Service. All these points will be negotiated.

I said yesterday in the House that under the Civil Service conciliation and arbitration scheme a sub-committee of the general council has been established to discuss all the issues relating to decentralisation. A meeting with the Congress of Trade Unions takes place next week.

We have said repeatedly that the programme will be entirely voluntary. There will be no compulsion or redundancies. I understand that many people have concerns they want addressed. It is the job of the Government and the various committees working on the matter to address these legitimate concerns. I was through this process in the first round which successfully moved public servants to Donegal, Sligo, Galway, Ennis, Limerick, Killarney, Cork, Tipperary and several other parts of the country. We will follow the same system of negotiations this time.

I assure Deputies that thousands of public servants, mainly at the middle and lower levels, want to move. People at higher levels, for family and other reasons, have some difficulties. We must discuss and deal with these matters. We are now in that process and discussions are under way. Hopefully, we will deal satisfactorily with it, as we did with the previous programme in the early 1990s.

I welcome the Taoiseach's remarks that for the first time he is prepared to make concessions to family considerations. How does that fit into the cost of this exercise where the Minister announced that lock, stock and barrel Departments were to be relocated to different parts of the country? This is not the planned relocation of self-contained agencies and sections of Departments to operate and implement policy. This purports to disintegrate the Civil Service and to avoid the normal interactions that take place in policy making every day. There is no question of cost and the Taoiseach still seems to be hanging on to the belief of the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, that as soon as there is a stretch in the evenings, they will all move.

The most recent quango we had was the PIAB which the Tánaiste said she had to locate in Dublin because it would not be viable elsewhere.

That contract was agreed beforehand.

This is a political stroke that reminds me of the 1982 advertisement in the Kerry newspaper with a fresh faced young John O'Donoghue who said his policy was to implement the policy of decentralisation by moving the Department of Justice to Killarney. That was 1982.

That is from Fergus Finlay's archive, I would say.

(Interruptions).

It is not appropriate to display literature during Question Time.

I am glad to see that promise was kept as there are between 160 and 200 civil servants in Killarney in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. It is good to see that.

I will appoint the Deputy as my election agent next time.

If it takes 22 years to deliver the Minister will need one.

All the planning, architecture, engineering associations and others who come to see me point out that they consider the greater Dublin area is effectively Leinster which they say has a population of 2 million people. A number of the centres of whole Departments are within that area. I see people in my own office who are travelling from Drogheda, Mullingar and Kildare. That is happening right across the public service and there is an enormous demand——

If the Taoiseach moved against the builders that——

The Taoiseach without interruption.

Deputies want my minute and their minute every morning. If they want to ask questions they should accept answers. They do not want to hear answers. The second point is that the implementation group has identified the people issues in the programme as being crucial to the success of the whole exercise. This is not the first time I said this. I have said all along that the Government endorses the programme and has put in place structures designed to ensure proper communication between all those involved in the process, particularly those directly involved, namely, the staff. We will do all we can to work with and facilitate the staff on this issue.

What about compensation?

The Taoiseach said that he was in favour of balanced regional development. Outside the Teagasc centre in Ballinamore, County Leitrim, this morning a large number of small farmers and members of the local community are protesting peacefully against the removal of the State's herd of cattle from the facility and the closure of the research centre. A large number of gardaí have also been present for the past few days to bludgeon the community into line with the disastrous decision of the Minister for Agriculture and Food to cut the Teagasc budget in 2002, thereby ending the vital research specific to that particular centre. This research touches on the livelihoods of the small farming community and downstream workers in the more marginalised and disadvantaged areas and involves a band of counties.

Did they pay their service charges? Unlike the Deputy.

The local community in Leitrim is being bullied in exactly the same way as the decent working people of Dublin when they peacefully protested against Government stealth taxes. Millionaire ranchers do not have to worry about surviving on snipe grass; it is not an issue for them. The closure of the research facility and the ending of the research specific to the area have serious implications. It is only two years since €250,000 was invested in this facility. Will the Taoiseach intervene urgently in this situation? Will he instruct the Minister for Agriculture and Food to open talks with the local communities involved and to maintain this centre which is vital to the future economic well-being of the area and of the communities that survive in the area, both working people and small farmers? The centre is an essential part of what the Taoiseach says he favours, namely, balanced regional development.

To the best of my knowledge this concerns the Ballinamore field station which is not a research centre. Approximately three people are involved in it on a full-time basis. It is an operational decision.

What about the farming community which depends on it?

This is an operational decision of the administration and, I understand, the board of Teagasc which is representative of farm interests. Those interests are represented on the board which made the decision. The Teagasc board and administration which deal directly with this believe that moving these people to Carrick-on-Shannon is the proper and better way to provide a proper and functional service. It would not be appropriate for me to direct or act the Minister to interfere with what is a functional decision of the board of Teagasc.

When he wishes to do so, the Taoiseach has no problem directing Ministers and Deputies alike out to the plinth to give his side of the story. The Taoiseach is either in charge of the Government or he is not. It is less than two years since the head of the dairy research, Dr. Crosse, stated that the Ballinamore farm was an integral part of the research division of Teagasc. It is not good enough to say that this is an operational decision. This is related to the cutbacks implemented in the past two years by the Minister for Finance which have had implications down the line for ordinary people. The research in this facility is specific to the band of counties around it and to the area. It cannot be replicated elsewhere as the Taoiseach suggests. It would be possible not only to maintain the facility but to carry out research into further sustainable means by which communities and working people who depend on small agriculture can remain in rural Ireland. Will the Taoiseach please ask the Minister for Agriculture and Food to open constructive lines of communication with the local community in the area in order to resolve the issue by maintaining the facility?

I am not sure if the Deputy is really interested in my points. He says he does not care if it was an operational issue or a board decision. It was a board decision. Teagasc is not short of resources for research. It has sold its centre in Sandymount Avenue in Dublin and has about €20 million in funds. It is moving to Carlow. There are no farmers left in Sandymount.

How can it be moved to Carlow because of the deal on decentralisation?

The Taoiseach should be allowed to answer Deputy Higgins's question. No other Member from any other party should intervene under any circumstances.

Deputy Joe Higgins inferred that I should be able to direct Teagasc, which I refute. It is a decision of the Teagasc board. He also stated the decision was due to a lack of resources. It is not. Teagasc sold its headquarters in Sandymount Avenue and moved to Carlow.

It has not moved yet.

Teagasc has €20 million for research and development, which must be put to best use. Leitrim has never done as well. Over 1,000 people are working in the MBNA plant alone. Farmers involved in the Teagasc board believed this was the best thing to do. It is a field centre not a research centre.

They did not. The former director opposed it. The Taoiseach is incorrect.

The Deputy should allow the Taoiseach without interruption.

There are only three people on it.

During exchanges across the House when Deputy Kenny submitted his question, I understand a remark was made concerning the chairman of the Standards in Public Office Commission and the e-voting commission. Due to the level of interruption the Chair did not hear the remark and, therefore, I am not in a position to rule on it.

In accordance with long standing rules of the House, the Chair deplores any remarks made concerning an eminent member of the Judiciary.

Deputies

Hear, hear.